Olive Kitteridge

Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. Random House (New York: 2008).

A beautifully-written novel structured as a story cycle about characters in a small Maine town, some focusing on Olive, the titular character, a retired schoolteacher, and Olive Kitteridgeothers only touching on her, and yet Olive is a heavy presence throughout, difficult, complicated and unforgettable. She’s flawed, but has a ruthless honesty which makes her compelling. For writers: Although this story lacks a conventional plot, the constant tension within and between the characters keeps us turning the page. Whenever Olive is present, we’re never sure just how far she might go. This novel’s undeniable excellence, and its commercial success, provide an argument for the centrality of character and a fine demonstration of how the very specific can resonate on a universal level.

Digging to America

Tyler, Anne. Digging to America. Vintage Books (London: 2007).

Digging to AmericaOne of the milder of Tyler’s novels, centered around a set of character studies. Iranian immigrant Maryam realizes that she’s defined herself as an outsider — and yet somehow, in spite of herself, she becomes part of an unlikely pairing of families, and comes to care about the very type of Americans that she thinks she’ll never understand. For writers: Less is more here, but it works. The problems have an everyday quality, but the people are brought to life with such particularity in how they act and what they say, that we can’t help becoming invested in them. Like Maryam, we end up caring about these characters, in a deft application of “show, don’t tell.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Penguin Putnam Inc. (New York: 1999).

Girl with a Pearl EarringA fictional tale set in 1660’s Holland behind the famous painting by Vermeer. The girl respects her position and obligations as the family maid, and yet has inner fire – an interpretation the painting supports. Attracted to the great painter, she assists him and is ultimately painted by him, but that goes too far for the wife and others in their constricted world. A certain fatalism, even cynicism at times, but this girl is a survivor. For writers: Chevalier has created a credible tale out of the already known by investing this world with enough coarseness and detail to stand for possible truth.